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Moment of Reckoning: How decades of mismanagement has Florida State on the outside looking in of conference realignment

How did one of college sports biggest brands become trapped in a conference that was once an ideal match?

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Florida State

Florida State University President Richard McCullough and multiple members of the FSU Board of Trustees voiced feelings of frustration, anger, and bewilderment about FSU’s relationship with the ACC during last week’s Board of Trustees meeting.

It was punctuated by Drew Weatherford stating “For me, it’s not if we leave [the ACC], it’s how and when.”

These feelings aren’t anything new. Florida State Athletics Director Michael Alford quit with any subtlety about the current situation when he directly compared FSU’s revenue earnings to the SEC & Big 10 while leaving out the ACC in a presentation to the FSU Board of Trustees in November 2022.

It’s not hard to see why FSU wants out. The SEC and Big Ten will be grossing over $30 million more annually than what the ACC will generate for the member schools in the coming years. The revenue gap will make it harder to compete for national titles in football and force non-revenue sports to be increasingly cash strapped. Next year, FSU, Notre Dame, Miami, and Clemson will be the only schools to have won multiple national championships since World War II to play outside of the SEC or Big Ten.

In hindsight, it’s easy to view Florida State joining the ACC over the SEC in 1992 as a mistake. However, the ACC was the better choice at the time. The oft-mentioned Bobby Bowden quote about the ACC being an easier path to a national championship was true. Nevertheless, football coaches don’t make conference realignment decisions; university presidents & athletic directors do. Thanks to a far different environment for TV rights, the ACC generated more revenue per school than either the SEC or Big Ten as recently as 2001 and signed a massive TV deal with ESPN shortly after the first Big East raid in 2004. Besides monetary factors, the ACC offered Florida State a chance to help build an identity other than being a party school with a football team. The ACC’s basketball prestige was second to none and their commitment to non-revenue sports was unequaled outside of California. On the academic side of things, the ACC had the best collection of schools in the South and promised FSU a university partnership that would help boost FSU’s academic prestige.

But the media landscape would have a seismic shift.

In 2007, the Big Ten’s creation of its own conference network brought college sports into a brave new world. By collecting schools’ third tier rights into one pot and getting it on cable, the conference turned meaningless, early September, non-conference games that were previously only available as overpriced pay-per-views into a gold mine. The SEC followed the same blueprint with their own conference network in 2014 in partnership with ESPN.

What about the ACC? The league signed a horrendously backwards looking deal in 2011 with ESPN that has been the source of the conference’s woes to this day. While the ACC managed to get comparable money to the SEC & Big Ten for its main TV rights, the league signed away all of its third tier rights to ESPN as part of the deal for essentially nothing. ESPN then sub-licensed those to Raycom Sports for $50 million a year that it did not have to share with the conference. This was done at the behest of then-ACC Commissioner John Swofford, who wanted to keep Raycom as an ACC TV partner above all else in TV negotiations. Swofford maintained it was due to Raycom’s long standing relationship as a media partner with the ACC. However, Swofford’s son was a Raycom executive and maintaining the rights to the ACC was a necessary lifeline after Raycom had lost the rights to the SEC the year prior. Whether it was an egregious example of nepotism or terrible lack of foresight to see where college media rights were going the deal has been an albatross around the neck of the league ever since.

Maryland specifically cited the ACC’s lack of future TV revenue in its decision to bolt for the Big Ten a year later. Attempts to renegotiate the deal with ESPN have come with giving up increasingly more for increasingly less. The original ACC Grant of Rights was created in 2013 after the Notre Dame deal as a way to get ESPN to increase media payouts & in 2016 the GOR was extended to 2036 to get ESPN on board with creating the ACC Network.

So how did FSU get entangled in this mess? Why didn’t someone at the top see the changing landscape and start making phone calls to Birmingham or Chicago to figure out an exit strategy?

For FSU, it came down to the worst possible leadership at the most critical times.

What Bobby Bowden accomplished was nothing short of a miracle during his time at Florida State. FSU is the only school to start a football team after World War II to win a national championship. Seminole football being a weekly fixture of national TV broadcasts helped bring in the revenue and attention needed to turn Florida State from a glorified community college to one of the best public universities in the South. However, that meteoric success allowed Florida State’s athletics department to get away with operating as a mom & pop business despite necessary changes that needed to be made to modernize.

In 2007, Dave Hart’s contract as FSU athletic director wasn’t renewed in the wake of the online music class scandal. Tensions had been mounting between Hart, Bowden, and then-FSU President T.K. Wetherell over Hart unilaterally getting the boosters on board with removing Jeff Bowden from FSU’s coaching staff, along with bringing in Jimbo Fisher to eventually replace Bowden. A message board rumor at the time was that school higher ups had been well aware of the issues with the class but looked away until it could be used as an excuse to not renew Hart’s contract and thought the NCAA would just issue a slap on the wrist penalty. Instead, the NCAA handed down a multi-year sanction along with vacating numerous wins by the football and basketball teams. It is the reason FSU’s bowl streak & Bobby Bowden’s career win totals are not recognized as the NCAA records they are to this day.

Any school looking to replace a longtime successful athletic director is in for a challenge. FSU had a further complication, Andy Miller.

Andy Miller was the longtime president of the Seminole Boosters. With the boosters being a separate entity for the athletics department and Miller’s personal fiefdom, Miller was the real power behind the throne of FSU athletics. Miller ran Seminole Boosters like an organization stuck in the 1970s. Perhaps the most public example of that were his derided comments about going on an “old fashioned door knocking campaign” in regards to how to raise funds to deal with FSU’s increasing budget shortfalls in 2019. The austerity with which he could run the booster organization under Bowden carried over despite the growing need for the latest and greatest facilities, as was highlighted in an ESPN piece about Jimbo Fisher’s exit from Tallahassee. This was a structure unlike any other in college athletics and was seen as an impediment to attracting more qualified candidates for FSU’s athletic director following the departure of Dave Hart.

In the wake of Dave Hart’s departure, FSU’s top athletics role would be filled by Randy Spetman from 2008 through 2013. Though Spetman had previous stints as athletics director at Air Force & Utah State, it became apparent to program insiders he was not cut out to run a major athletics program. He scheduled series with USF and Boise State that were largely lambasted. It was during his tenure that FSU athletics began running into a financial hole. In 2011, Spetman publicly commented that FSU was “comfortable” in the ACC before then saying it would be up to newly appointed university president Eric Barron whether FSU would actively pursue any changes to conference membership. Spetman was relieved from being Florida State’s athletic director within days of laying out a 5 year vision for athletics in 2013.

The decision to put pen to paper to sign the ACC Grant of Rights came down to then-president Eric Barron. Barron was an academic at heart that wasn’t personally invested in Seminole athletics. With more forward thinking athletic leadership in place around the time, perhaps Barron would’ve been convinced leaving the ACC would be in FSU’s long term interests. Instead, Barron publicly shot down any rumors that the Seminoles were seeking to join the SEC or the Big 12. Barron even publicly defended FSU’s membership in the ACC in 2012 when rumors of the Seminoles looking to join the Big 12 were at their loudest. Barron would eventually sign the newly drafted ACC Grant of Rights in 2013 before leaving to become President of Penn State University less than a year later.

Barron would be succeeded by former state legislator and FSU alumni John Thrasher. While Thrasher was personally invested in the success of both the university and athletics department, he would need better guidance from FSU’s top athletics officials than what had been offered previously. Randy Spetman’s replacement was former Duke Deputy Athletic Director Stan Wilcox . In Tomahawk Nation’s article about Wilcox’s hire, it was asked

“How much does he know about multi-media rights, digital rights, third-tier rights, and the economics thereof. The question was asked because one source doesn’t believe people born before 1970 have a great grasp of those things. He wants to know how much Wilcox knows about those issues, and if he has someone helping him with that aspect of the job.”

The answer to those questions still have consequences for FSU to this day. Wilcox was a staunch supporter of FSU’s membership in the ACC and later the ACC Network. Wilcox projected the ACC Network could bring in $15 million a year for Florida State athletics. Thanks to those projections, Thrasher didn’t object to extending the ACC Grant of Rights through 2036 as a prerequisite for ESPN launching the ACC Network. Unfortunately the investments mandated by ESPN would propel Florida State athletics into yearly deficits of almost $4 million before Wilcox resigned to take a position with the NCAA in 2018. While the ACC Network has brought in new revenue, the upfront costs and the length of the contract have made the gains ultimately not worthwhile. In addition, as cord cutting continues the subscriber fees from the conference networks will largely dry up by 2036.

Florida State will be leaving the ACC sooner rather the later. The Seminoles are too valuable a TV property for either ESPN or FOX to let wither on the vine for long. However, that exit is likely going to come at the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to buy our way out of the ACC Grant of Rights. This all could’ve been avoided a decade ago with better leadership.